At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Attilio Pavesi - Olympic cycling champion

Rider from Emilia-Romagna won Italy's first road racing gold 


Pavesi was soon regarded as a star in Italy,  where posters of him were everywhere
Pavesi was soon regarded as a star in Italy,
 where posters of him were everywhere
Attilio Pavesi, the first winner of an individual Olympic gold medal in Italian cycling history, was born on this day in 1910 in the small town of Caorso in Emilia-Romagna.

At the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932, Pavesi won the individual road race and picked up a second gold medal as a member of the Italian quartet that won the team classification in the same race.

Italy had already won gold medals for the team pursuit in track cycling - indeed, they won that title for the fourth time in a row in 1932 - but had not enjoyed success on the road before Pavesi's triumph.

Pavesi, the last of 11 children born to Angelo, a poultry farmer, and his wife Maria, was a natural all-round sportsman, excelling at running, long jump, swimming, diving, gymnastics and football as he grew up.

He was such a strong swimmer he once saved a boy from drowning in a local river by pulling him to the bank by his hair.

His interest in cycling developed after he left school at the age of 10 to take a job in a workshop, learning how to repair all modes of transport from bicycles to tractors.  He joined a cycling team and won a number of trophies and continued to compete during his national service.

Pavesi was selected to travel to Los Angeles as a reserve for the road race but was determined that he would not make the arduous journey just to be a spectator.  The transatlantic crossing typically took about two weeks and when he boarded the SS Conte Biancamano in Naples he had a plan to keep himself in good physical shape by exercising each day.  Luckily, while others on the voyage suffered from seasickness, he was unaffected.

The SS Conte Biancamano pictured at the port of Naples
The SS Conte Biancamano pictured at the port of Naples
After disembarking in New York, the Italian athletes then had to make a five-day journey by train to cross from the east coast to the west.  When their individual fitness was assessed, Pavesi was in the best shape and was picked as one of the four-man team.

He won the race, staged as a 100km time trial with the finishing line on Santa Monica Beach, with a time of two hours, 28 minutes and five seconds.  With team-mate Guglielmo Segato second and Giuseppe Olmo fourth, Italy comfortably won the team gold.

Pavesi afterwards attributed his physical strength to his mother's home-made bread.

After the Games, Pavesi turned professional, competing in cycle races at home and abroad.  At the time when the future of Italy and Europe was becoming increasingly uncertain with the outbreak of the Second World War began, he decided to emigrate to Argentina.

The circumstances are not clear, but it appears he had been competing in an event in Buenos Aires when the boat on which he intended to return to Italy departed without him. He eventually settled in the town of Sáenz Peña on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, where he opened a bicycle shop and organised professional races.

Pavesi's victory paved the way for a golden period for Italian cycling, with the next six Olympics after the War bringing 16 gold medals.

He visited Italy regularly but Argentina became his home and he had such good health that he survived beyond his 100th birthday.  He was the oldest surviving Olympian when he passed away in August 2011, just two months shy of his 101st birthday.  He spent his final days in a nursing home, looked after by his son Claudio and daughter Patricia.

Pavesi's last visit to Italy was in 2003 at the age of 93, as the principal guest at the opening of the Fiorenzuola Velodrome, not far from Caorso.  The complex contains an Attilio Pavesi Museum, commemorating his career.

The historic Rocca Mandelli in Caorso houses the town hall
The historic Rocca Mandelli in Caorso houses the town hall
Travel tip:

The town of Caorso is notable for the Rocca Mandelli, a fortress built in 820 by the sisters of the Bishop of Piacenza, Imelde and Ursa.  It is thought that the fort was first known as Ca' Ursa - the house of Ursa - from which evolved the name Caorso. The Mandelli family took control of the fort in the late 14th century and it remained in their ownership for more than 400 years.  Nowadays it houses the town hall and municipal offices.

Travel tip:

Piacenza, which stands at the confluence of the Po and Trebbia rivers, was declared "First born of the Unification of Italy" after what happened in 1848 when a massive 98 per cent of the population voted to become part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, having previously been occupied by Austria and Croatia.  It remained strategically important and suffered severe damage at the hands of Allied bombers in the Second World War.  Surviving buildings include the 13th century town hall - Il Gotico - on Piazza Cavelli and the 12th century Romanesque Cathedral.

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